This is an all points bulletin for New Yorkers who care deeply about film and about politics. Based on the press screenings of three films that are scheduled for the 2013 New York Indian Film Festival that opens today, you have the chance to see some amazing work. The two narrative films being discussed here are meant primarily for the Indian market. Unlike the typical Indian film that ends up at an art house in Greenwich Village, the directors behind these films came up through the ranks of the indigenous television and film industry rather than the UCLA Film School. This means that the sensibility is distinctly Indian as opposed to the sort of “globalized” film that exhibits more of West Hollywood than West Bengal. What you “lose” in terms of dramatic complexity and psychological depth is more than made up for by authenticity. The other film under discussion is a documentary that will probably not end up in a New York theater, all the more reason to take it in. After all, it is not every day that you get a chance to find out about war-torn Manipur’s main passion: baseball.
Directed by Devashish Makhija, “Oonga” is the first film I have seen out of India that takes up the cause of the Adivasi, the so-called forest-dwelling tribals who provide the base of support for the Naxalite guerrillas whose case novelist Arundhati Roy argued. Oonga is the name of a young boy who has become obsessed with the story of Rama, the seventh avatar of the Vishnu deity in Hinduism, so much so that he makes a pilgrimage to a distant city where the village teacher has brought classes in the past to see a reenactment of Rama’s combat with the evil monarch Ravana staged at an amusement park.
Because the teacher has brought Adivasi children to the city, she has come under suspicion from the local military detachment that is trying to wipe out the Naxalites. They are convinced that she has brought the children there to be indoctrinated. They take her into custody and begin torturing her into making a false confession of being a Naxalite spy.
Meanwhile the Naxalites have brought the teacher to their camp in the forest to get her to persuade the villagers to join the struggle. Made up mostly of women, the guerrillas have taken up arms because there is no alternative. Their husbands have already been killed or imprisoned and their land confiscated to be used for mining bauxite. While the teacher and the villagers she leads are depicted as a kind of football being contested by two opposing sides, the brunt of the film is to show the military as utterly depraved and at the service of the mining companies.
Oonga manages to make his way to the city despite knowing very few words in Hindi and relying totally on the mercy of strangers willing to give an Adivasi youth a ride in their truck or on a motorcycle. Once he is in the amusement park, he sneaks into the tent where the Rama legend is being reenacted as a kind of set piece reminiscent of the ballet in “An American in Paris”. It is one of the more astonishingly beautiful “song and dance” scenes I have ever seen in an Indian movie, more Balanchine than Bollywood.
Directed by Ratnakar Matkari, “Investment” is a scathing portrayal of the grubby, materialistic, and Western-oriented upwardly mobile classes in India. When we first meet husband Ashish and wife Prachi in their high-rise, they seem normal enough. They are enjoying the benefits of a rising standard of living and sharing the abundance they enjoy with their 12-year-old son Sohel who at first blush appears like a typical spoiled brat.
When his dad asks him to turn down the volume on the television set so he can talk to someone in a position of helping him land a job at Barclay’s, the son tells him to go to another room since he is watching one of his favorite shows on MTV, one that features American rappers celebrating their wealth and fame. When he is not watching TV, Sohel is zoned out on video games based on killing “enemies”. (Are there any other kind?)
But as the plot develops, we learn that Sohel is not just spoiled. He is a psychopathic killer in the vein of Patty McCormack in the 1954 film “The Bad Seed”, a lying and murderous 12-year-old girl who became the inspiration for a host of other less inspired horror movies of the 1970s through today.
But the real horror is India’s class society. Sohel has a sick sexual interest in a schoolmate with a mother and father beneath his own parents socially, like characters in a Dreiser novel. When she resists his advances, he strangles her in a wooded area nearby his school where Adivasi peoples have been protesting the takeover of their land by a real estate company. The film makes no attempt to provide a “balanced” view. It is an old-fashioned diatribe against a monstrous family who are obviously symbols of an India that 74-year-old director Ratnakar Matkari has no use for.
This, his first movie, is a clear expression of his values previously reflected through a Marathi translation of Arundhati Roy‘s English essay titled Greater Common Good. After earning a degree in economics from Mumbai University in 1958, he worked at the Bank of India for the next twenty years. Despite his ability to enjoy the life of his evil characters, he is much more interested in challenging the values that are currently encouraging their development.
Directed by Mirra Bank, “The Only Real Game” is a documentary about the baseball craze in Manipur, a state bordering on Burma that has had 30 guerrilla groups operating at its height (or depth, as you look at it.) Ethnically, the people look more Burmese than Indian. This and just about every other aspect of Manipur culture and politics make me realize how dense and challenging the study of India can be. Even if the film was about nothing except Manipur cuisine, it would be worth watching simply for an insight into a nationality that we know so little about.
Apparently the Manipur people are the most athletic in India and took to baseball like a duck takes to water when they first discovered it during WWII. American airman created a base in their state that was a link the supply chain to the soldiers fighting against the Japanese. Not long after creating their field of dreams, they began teaching the natives how to hold a bat and throw a ball—American hegemony’s more beneficent side.
The film shows standout talents from Manipur as well as an American delegation of professionals who raised money for supplies and to support a clinic on the finer points of baseball. Among those on the delegation is former minor league standout Jeff Brueggemann who was never quite good enough or healthy enough to make it in the majors. He is an immensely appealing character and shows what America is capable of once it puts away its guns and its capital.